Well, the Suez worked, didn’t it? And that was over 100 miles long! The distance across the Panama was a mere 40 miles. It would be relatively easy. Wouldn’t it?
The French work began in the early 1880’s, but it soon became obvious this was not going to be as simple as digging a ditch. Mountains and jungle. Torrential rain. Flooding and mud slides. Snakes and crocodiles. And even more dangerous. Mosquitos! In the first year, more than a thousand died of malaria and yellow fever. No-one knew why.
After nine years of sweat and toil, the “official” death count was over 5,000. Most historians think it was more like 20,000.
The French downed tools in 1888 and returned home with their tails between their legs. They had come to construct the largest civil engineering work the world had ever known. Instead, they left behind thousands of graves, an unyielding jungle and one very deep – and very damp – ditch.
In 1902, the US decided they could do a better job, but Colombia refused to grant them rights to build it. So, with a little ‘help’, Panama secured its independence from Columbia and granted the US territorial administration of the canal zone.
However, the Americans quickly realized that a level canal (a deep ditch) just wasn’t feasible. Depending on tides, the Pacific is up to 8 or 9 inches (20cm) higher than the Atlantic. One of the reasons for this is that the Atlantic is saltier than the Pacific, which makes the Atlantic denser! (See? We all knew the two oceans looked and felt different, didn’t we?)
A system of locks were designed to lift vessels 85 feet in the air, then let them down again on the other side.
For the next ten years, amidst more cave-ins, more mud slides, more sickness and accidents claiming even more lives, over 6,000 men worked daily for 10 hours in temperatures of up to 120 degrees farenheit (49 celsius).
The Canal finally opened amid pomp and ceremony on August 3, 1914, just a few weeks after the commencement of World War 1, and the American ship – the SS Ancon – became the first to transit Panama, making it through in just over nine hours.
If vessels arrived late afternoon or evening, their first port of call was Balboa, on the Pacific side.
While most passengers took advantage of time ashore there, some opted for a short taxi ride to the larger Panama City. Wolfram Dallwitz was one of those, and he found it a real eye-opener to see how some people lived.
“It was certainly was colourful.” says Wolfram. “People were sleeping under their market stalls, and in doorways, and riff-raff skylarking in the back streets. Heavily armed soldiers and police were patrolling the streets. Two soldiers were but steps away from us tourists, so we were safe.”
Sharyn Arthur also joined a group of people and visited Panama City in the early evening: “It seemed fairly scary. We didn’t stay more than a few hours and wandered down a residential street. A local woman came out and told us firmly to leave the area immediately as it was not safe. She escorted us back to the main street. Some hours later, back on the ship we heard that someone had been knifed.”
Tim Roche agrees. “We found Panama city even more scary (than Balboa) and returned to the safety of the ship very hastily.”
The following morning there was usually a queue of ships waiting their turn to make the slow journey through the canal. Steve Mullis recalls that a buffet luncheon was set up in the enclosed promenade for passengers’ enjoyment as they watched the ship being lifted through the locks, then lowered on the other side of Lake Gatun on the Atlantic side.
Tim Roche remembers entering the canal in 1975 in tandem with the Galileo: “It was great fun…much waving and banter went on between the two ships. Bev Almond found it “wondrous at the time… for a while … but a bit on the tedious side.” Lois Umbach found the process very boring, in 1970 and remembers spending a pleasant day lazing around the pool that day.
Wolfram Dallwitz certainly didn’t find it tedious. “I watched in amazement how the ship was lifted through the locks,” he recalls. “My friends and I stayed awake for the whole crossing.” Leslie Allan has a memory of passing a prison on the way: “All the inmates came over to the fence and waved to us.”
Chandris crew member Costas Veloudakis had the unusual experience of making the journey by car…
“I was working on the Australis and the captain asked me if I could disembark with the pilot to collect some important medications from the agent’s office. I would then be driven through the jungle to re-join the ship in Cristobal.
When Costas arrived at the office, a young man handed him the package and also dropped a gun on the driver’s lap. Coastas was shocked. “What do we need a gun for?” he asked. The agent looked at him and said: “you understand we go through jungle? If anybody stops us we take gun shoot in the air and if OK we pass. If not…”
“That was not what I had bargained for!” Costas recalls, but later described it as “a fantastic experience” when they made it through without incident and re-joined the ship in Cristobal.
Steve Mullis also experienced a unique arrival in Cristobal in 1976, but not via the jungle: “The Australis docked on her own, without any assistance from tugs!” says Steve. “She did a slow collision, taking out a few dozen tractor tyres and buffers and was in need of a new coat of paint at wharf level.”
Cristobal reminded 1974 passenger Graham Ritchie of one of those old black&white Humphrey Bogart movies. Crew member Linda Harrison remembers it in a similar way: “… seedy, dilapidated Spanish architecture, a little buzz of nervousness, and very cheap gold.”
“A little buzz of nervousness?” Passenger Robert Goldberg found Cristobal even scarier than Balboa, but also agreed that it was “very colourful.” He saw little apes in cages at the market for the locals as a fresh meat supply and also recalls being offered items in “a very mean persuasive way at every corner” (No doubt those ‘items’ weren’t the cheap gold Linda referred to!)
“It an awful place!” Steve Mullis insists. He traversed Panama a second time in 1976, but wisely chose not to go ashore in Cristobal again.
Denise Gillyett-Marshall’s cabin steward was knifed there, but she adds that “he was back at work in a few days cleaning cabins.” Thank goodness! None of us could have done without our precious cabin stewards!
While most muggings occurred at night or in back alleyways, muggers weren’t deterred by busy streets or broad daylight if you were carrying something of value. No surprise that passengers were again given warnings.
“We crew always gave warnings not to go down the alleys in Cristobal and to stay in a group,” Crew member Linda Harrison insists. “But we always had muggings.”
Tim Roche and his group heeded the warning, but on the way back to the ship they met a fellow passenger in distress. He’d been mugged and robbed of his wallet and camera! “Well,” says Tim philosophically, “everyone knew the risks!”
Passenger Robert Taylor also met “one very distressed female who had her handbag cut from her grasp and lost everything of value.” Robert’s motto: Never put all your eggs in one basket.” He also noticed the police all had hand grenades pinned to shirt pockets and carried machine guns!
Graham Ritchie went ashore in the afternoon during his trip in November 1974 and recalls: “Evening come on us real quick! We thought we had better get back to the ship, but in the dark streets we did get a bit lost.” He lived to tell the tale and later recalled: “At the time the locals wanted the canal back from the Americans, so we were very glad to get back to the safety of the ship! It was not a place to be left behind in, that’s for sure.”
On December 31, 1999, the Panamanians got their wish. Almost 100 years after construction began, and 86 years after SS Ancon made the first journey through the canal, the US finally relinquished control and handed over the administration for (and the profits from) the canal.
There was dancing in streets in Panama on that day. By 2014, the average toll for a ship to travel through the canal was $150,000.
The cheapest toll ever paid was in 1928, when travel writer and adventurer Richard Halliburton paid 36 cents to swim its length. It took him ten days to complete the journey and amazingly, he didn’t get gobbled up by a crocodile! (New Worlds To Conquer by Richard Halliburton, 1928)
In 2016, new locks were added to accommodate bigger ships … and not a moment too soon! Ships were getting wider, longer, higher. In 2018, the 168,028-ton vessel, Norwegian Bliss became the largest vessel to travel through the canal. At 335 metres long (half as long again as the Australis!) and 41 metres at the widest point (again, half as wide as our lady), and with a towering 20 decks, she just managed to squeeze under the Bridge of the Americas which spans the Pacific Ocean entrance … but she had to do it in the early hours of the morning – at 3.30am – when the tide was at its lowest!
The Norwegian Bliss isn’t the largest vessel afloat! There are at least 9 cruise ships currently plying the oceans that are even bigger than her!
At time of writing, the heaviest, longest, widest and highest floating apartment building (oops, sorry, I mean passenger liner) is Royal Caribbean’s 228,081 tonne Symphony of the Seas, but unless they raise the bridge (or let Symphony’s tyres down) it’s unlikely she’ll ever become a Panamax ship. Her height of 236 feet means that regardless how low the tide is, it would be impossible for her to clear the 201 ft. high bridge.
Ahhhh, Panama, what a trip you made possible for us. Thank you.
Many thanks to Wolfram Dallwitz, Sharyn Arthur, Tim Roche, Steve Mullis, Bev Almond, Leslie Allan, Costas Veloudakis, Robert Taylor, Graham Ritchie, Linda Harrison, Robert Goldberg and Denise Gillyett-Marshall for their fascinating contributions.